When a band as popular as BTS takes a break — definitely, totally not a hiatus, we’re heartily assured by all who have an interest, financial or otherwise, in the mega-selling K-Pop group’s continued existence — the first solo album to emerge from one of the members is always an intriguing prospect.
Will it be a total renouncement of the style of music previously propagated by the band? Or will it sound rather like what came before, in a bid to carry fans of the collective over to the new venture?
As it turns out, the first solo foray of the not-a-hiatus era, delivered by J-Hope, is somewhere between the two. While its hip-hop stylings might not be a complete break from BTS’s genre-mashing past, the album’s title, Jack in the Box, suggests that we’re about to be confronted with something that, up until now, had been hidden away.
And for J-Hope personally, that’s the case here. Regarded as one of the more cheerful group members, much of this album reaches into the gloomier pits of his personality. Old-school rap is the vehicle to take him there, to the extent that the instantly recognisable piano sample from Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s 1995 classic Shimmy Shimmy Ya is repackaged on What if…. J-Hope doesn’t come close to matching the rusty-razor edge of the Wu-Tang man (few can), but the grisly, rap-rock vibe is far rougher than much of BTS’s chrome-plated pop.
It’s a style that J-Hope dresses up in a few different skins, from the scratchy rumble of Pandora’s Box to huge power-chord chorus of MORE. There are some sunnier moments — = (Equal Sign) and Safety Zone — but these are very much the rays of light beamed in to counter the rest of the album’s darkness.
As is always the case with BTS, the vocal delivery is the most impressive part of it all, constantly remoulding itself while switching almost imperceptibly between Korean and English. It’s just a shame there isn’t more to get stuck into; with the 10 tracks racing past in less than 22 minutes, it does end up coming across more like a proof of concept than a fully realised album.
Still, it’s a solid start, and with six more members (you’d imagine) still to come, there will be more to pick apart. Anyone worried that a truly sublime solo album could turn this indefinite BTS break into a definite one, though, can probably rest easy for now.